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Our View: Twin Ports offering reminders of the need to end sexual exploitation, human trafficking

From the editorial: "Such societal ills are as tragic as they are pervasive — and are far too often invisible, ignored, or neglected."

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Contributed photo / The event “Native American Heritage Month: Building Bridges and Honoring Resilient Communities” was held Saturday at the Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Center in Superior. It demonstrated the growing collaborations and continued support from Duluth and Superior to Native American and Indigenous communities.
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Sexual exploitation and the buying and selling of children and vulnerable others "happens here in Duluth every day," a leader of the Program for Aid to Victims of Sexual Assault, or PAVSA, once said in an interview with News Tribune Editorial Board members.

Our kids and others are at risk, especially those who have trouble making friends, whose home lives are unstable, who've experienced abuse, who are homeless, who are transgender, or who share any of a number of other vulnerabilities that make them targets.

Reminders of this are front and center right now with billboards that went up in September in Superior and will stay up through Dec. 13 to help raise awareness of murdered and missing Indigenous women, girls, and others; with proclamations by Superior Mayor Jim Paine and Duluth Mayor Emily Larson of November as Native American Heritage Month; with the recent creation in Superior of a human trafficking task force (a Duluth trafficking task force was formed in 2010); and with a community event last weekend in Superior to demonstrate the growing collaborations between city government officials in the Twin Ports and Native and Indigenous communities.

Like previous marches, candlelight vigils, and other events that have become annual occurrences in Duluth and Superior, these recent happenings are opportunities for all to learn and to become more aware, including regarding ending human trafficking, ending exploitation, and protecting victims.

As News Tribune editorials have pointed out on a number of occasions, such societal ills are as tragic as they are pervasive — and are far too often invisible, ignored, or neglected.

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“Human trafficking, by its very nature, is a hidden crime whose victims and survivors often go unidentified, and/or misidentified," PAVSA said in a statement in January. "It is occurring throughout the United States, in urban, suburban, and rural areas. Eventual victims are often targeted due to vulnerabilities or inequalities, several of which have been heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic. Survivors of trafficking can be any age, race, gender, or nationality, and they may come from any socioeconomic group."

Troublingly, Minnesota is one of the top locations in the U.S. for sex trafficking, according to the state's Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Task Force. Four out of five Native American women and girls will experience sexual violence in their lifetimes, the task force has determined. And Native women are trafficked at 10 times the rate of other populations in our region.

For all his faults, President Donald Trump, during his term, signed an executive order to establish a national task force to address the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women. The legislation includes guidelines and best practices for law enforcement to follow; improves coordination between law enforcement agencies; and enhances reporting, record keeping, and communication between law enforcement and families of victims.

All of us, beyond being aware, can watch for signs of trafficking in order to report it and stop it. Parents, landlords, educators, emergency-room workers, mall employees, and hotel and motel workers especially can watch for warning signs that include the use of slang like "the life," "daddy," "track," "johns," and "stable;" the presence of older boyfriends or girlfriends with youths; evidence of control or dominance in a relationship, including repeated phone calls; suspicious online activity; unexplained tattoos, especially on the neck or hand; downplayed health problems; inappropriate or sexually provocative clothing; sudden cash, expensive clothes, a new cell phone, or other big-ticket possessions without an established income; frequent fear, anxiety, hypervigilance, and paranoia; secrecy and vagueness regarding whereabouts; late nights or unusual hours; and running away.

“We all have a role to play in preventing exploitation and trafficking," said PAVSA, a Duluth-based nonprofit. "Enhancing awareness of the crime and committing to prevention is paramount."

Without anyone watching out, young people and others susceptible to being exploited can be convinced or conditioned to believe that survival sex, doing a "favor" for a friend, or intimate reciprocation for an expensive gift is normal. Is expected. The internet can feed the normalization. No one should be pressured to exchange sex acts for a warm place to stay, for a bite to eat, to feed a drug addiction, to avoid a beating, or because they feel they have no other option. Sadly, that's what's happening, though. And yes, here in the Twin Ports. Every day.

Until we step up and put a stop to it.

This is a reminder as clear as the billboards in the Twin Ports through mid-December about the 5,600 Indigenous women reported missing in the U.S. — just in 2020.

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